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Drug Makers' Free Samples May Bias Doctors

Physicians were more likely to prescribe these expensive meds, study found

THURSDAY, July 28, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Resident physicians with access to free drug samples in a medical clinic are more likely to prescribe heavily advertised drugs and less likely to recommend over-the-counter (OTC) and inexpensive drugs to their patients than doctors who don't have access to these handouts, according to a new study.

The findings raise questions about the influence of pharmaceutical companies on physician prescribing practices, the researchers say.

"We found that resident physicians with access to drug samples in clinics were more likely to write new prescriptions for heavily advertised drugs, and less likely to recommend OTC drugs than their peers. There was also a trend toward less use of inexpensive drugs," wrote study author Dr. Richard F. Adair of the University of Minnesota and Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

The six-month study included 29 internal medicine residents at an inner-city primary care clinic. The free drug samples included five classes of highly advertised drugs, matched with less expensive OTC and generic drugs.

The researchers compared prescribing differences in 390 decisions made by doctors who had access to the free drug samples and doctors who agreed not to use the samples.

Doctors with the free samples on hand were much more likely to prescribe these expensive, brand-name prescription medications compared to physicians without access to the samples, the researchers found.

The study was small, but the findings raise concerns.

"Access to drug samples influenced prescribing decisions of resident physicians, something that would seem to violate published national guidelines on physician interactions with the pharmaceutical industry," Adair wrote.

He added that the study also raises "questions about whether drug samples belong in clinics where residents are learning or low-income patients are receiving care. Other studies have shown that many Americans do not take prescribed medications because they cannot afford them. Whether to provide 'free' samples of expensive drugs to these patients is an ethical dilemma for many doctors."

More information

The FDA has information about generic drugs.

SOURCE: American Journal of Medicine, news release, July 28, 2005
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